The Great and Final Struggle of Lev Shestov

Boris Šinigoj

From Daring Uncoverings of the Groundlessness of Thought to Tremendous Revelations of Death

What is philosophy? And what is its task?

Jésus sera en agonie jusqu’à la fin du monde:
il ne faut pas dormir pendant ce temps-là.
Blaise Pascal1

In his paper entitled “In Memory of a Great Philosopher,”2 Lev Shestov provides some valuable information about his encounters with the founder of modern phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. Although Husserl strived to present philosophy as a strict science based on cognitive principles and the self-evidences of reason, which Shestov always strongly opposed, the two immediately became friends after meeting for the first time at a philosophical symposium in Amsterdam in 1928. Shestov was pleasantly surprised to learn that Husserl himself had given the initiative to meet in spite of being aware of the enormous differences in their thinking.3 He was even more attracted by Husserl’s radical philosophical passion and preoccupation with which he attempted, using Cartesian principles of thought, to reestablish philosophy as a science of absolute truths. At the same time, he recognized in Husserl’s rationality his own alter ego, which again challenged him to struggle with every self-evident or obvious matter of thought in order to free the human mind of its own bonds and awaken it for true revelations.
The emphatic and passionate philosophical attitude of this strict philosopher reminded Shestov of the fatal experience of “to be or not to be” and the “time out of joint” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which had drawn Shestov himself to philosophy. Later on, after becoming better acquainted with Kierkegaardian thought, Shestov was no longer surprised at Husserl’s suggestion to study more intensively the works of Kierkegaard, as he soon recognized in the radical attitude of this strict philosopher the true embodiment of the famous Dane’s fundamental statement entweder-oder (i.e. “either-or”). Shestov’s account of the radical philosophical attitude of his great intellectual antagonist is today confirmed not only by the notes of Sister Adelgundis Jaegerschmid, preserving Husserl’s contemplations from the last years of his life,4 but also by the philosopher’s early notes dating from 1906. These reveal a true existential crisis and a search, both uncovering his struggle with himself as the first and only possible means of a philosopher’s being at the beginning of his path:5

First of all I shall name a general task which I must solve for myself, if I am to call myself a philosopher at all. I am thinking about a certain criticism of the mind, a criticism of the logical and practical, even an evaluating mind. Without generally clarifying the significance, essence, methods and principal aspects of criticism of the mind; without creating, conceiving, strengthening and establishing a general concept for it, I truly cannot live (kann ich wahr und wahrhaftig nicht leben). I have indulged sufficiently in the torments of obscurity, of rambling doubt. I must attain inner certainty. I know this involves something great and the greatest, I know great geniuses have failed in this; and if I were to compare myself with them, I would have to fall into despair in advance …6

In contrast with Husserl’s fear of falling into despair too early, Shestov takes Kierkegaard’s view and sees despair as the place where philosophy originates.7 Yet this philosophy is no longer based on the self-evidences of thought in order to attain the absolute validity of its findings, but rather unveils the real face of truth in the groundlessness and uncertainty of the mind, in the existential paradoxes and absurdities of the world, in man’s caprices and the coincidental length of Cleopatra’s nose, in madness and insanity, which liberate the space of man’s understanding of unreasonable and irrational seeing, for reasons of the heart and faith. In brief, this philosophy teaches us how to love the abyss beneath our feet so that we may learn to fly.8 And yet Shestov as the herald of the contemporary hermeneutics of suspicion, which always seeks the meaning of philosophical questionings far beneath their established forms, had to exclaim to himself upon his first meeting with Husserl: how close we are in our basic philosophical attitudes and how unrelenting is the struggle between our differing philosophical positions. How incomprehensible is the philosophical fate that one finds a fellow fighter and friend in an intellectual antagonist.
When, in their discussions, the two men touched on the key question: “What is philosophy?”, they initially crashed like two mighty mountains whose weight cannot be measured or otherwise weighed. Only one of them recognized gravity according to the principles of reason, while the other preferred to believe in Job’s scales, where sadness and suffering weigh heavier than all the sands of the sea.9 Yet the very next moment they managed to come together as if guided by the old Hasidic statement: not like mountains, which are incapable of this, but like humans who come together to embrace in greeting.10 It was then that Shestov, heartened by the great examples of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, stepped forward and passionately asserted: “Philosophy is the great and final struggle”. But Husserl immediately rejected this and, despite their shared enthusiasm, sharply replied: “Nein, Philosophie ist Besinnung!” 11 Yet his radical philosophical position nevertheless confirmed Shestov’s reply.
If the true meaning of philosophy is therefore a struggle, then this certainly can’t be just any struggle, let alone a testing of strength. And least of all a bare verbal quarrelling, which to Shestov, as well as to the contemporary Russian writer, Rozanov12, is reminiscent of a fight on the verbal level and is also quite common among philosophers. That Shestov was well aware of this is easily confirmed in one of his witty jokes, which is not lacking in self-irony:

The struggle is father to all, king to all, Heraclites once taught; the important thing is to struggle, but why one struggles is another story altogether … The entire history of human thought – both philosophical and theological – is the history of a struggle, not a struggle for life, but for death. This leads to the idea that our conception of truth as something that cannot stand contradiction originates precisely in the passionate need for a struggle. Because elderly persons – philosophers and theologians are normally old men – can no longer fight with their fists, they came up with the idea that there is only one truth so that they could fight at least on the verbal level. The truth, on the other hand, is far from being ‘a one and only’, and is certainly not something that people would have to fight over. 13

When, in his discussion with Husserl, Shestov defended philosophy as the great and final struggle, he was not engaging in an ordinary polemic, but rather in a decisive spiritual struggle that is always first a struggle with oneself as a philosopher. This is a struggle in which Shestov endeavoured again and again not to conquer other philosophers, but his own self, inasmuch as he was still rooted in the world of intellectual self-evidences based on the principle of noncontradiction as a defender of the consistency of thought. He named it the great and final struggle, because through this struggle he attempted to find the way to contemplation of the only thing that is needed: not by speculatively accepting the impersonal logic of pure reason, but by heartedly questioning one’s own being; not by systematically referring to the self-evident principles of thought, but by unscrupulously uncovering the groundlessness of one’s own mind.
If the meaning of philosophy as a struggle is therefore to aim for the great and final things beyond ordinary polemics on truth and mutual challenges with words, then what is its task? Shestov finds the answer in Kierkegaard:

The task of philosophy is to liberate itself from the power of rationalism and to find in itself the courage (and such courage gives man only despair) to search for the truth in what most people usually consider to be paradox or absurd. It is where, according to our experience and understanding, all possibilities end; where, in our opinion, we lean against the wall of the absolutely impossible; where it is very obvious that there is no way out, that all has ended forever, that man no longer has anything to do or contemplate, that he can only watch and cool down; where people are abandoning and have to abandon any attempts at searching and struggling whatsoever; it is only there that … the real and true struggle begins – and this struggle is the task of philosophy. 14

In other words, the task of philosophy is to teach us to live in groundlessness and uncertainty of mind, to keep us awake by relentlessly contemplating unanswerable questions, to make us sensitive to the truth that is not self-evident, to the truth concealed in the paradox and the absurd, to prepare us for the impossible and the unexpected, the unheard of and the unthinkable. For this is the only way that philosophy can prepare us to heartedly persist in expecting the unexpected, whether by encouraging us with the fiery example of Ephesian’s “hope in that which is unhoped,” 15 or with the redemptiveness of the Apostles’ bold preachings of “hope against hope,” 16 which awakens desperate souls for “a new heaven and a new earth.” 17 And all of this for the sole purpose of preventing us from falling asleep as did the first disciples of Jesus. If we are to believe Pascal (and Shestov did), an eschatological drama is still taking place in the Gethsemane Garden as a mortal struggle of Jesus, and will continue until the end of the world. And here we can contribute our struggle with our own somnolence, i.e. our own philosophy, so that we may prepare ourselves, with “a hope that does not humiliate,”18 for the very end, which at the same time holds the promise of a new beginning.
For the disciples sleeping in the Gethsemane Garden later awoke in the flames of the Spirit in time to speak of this, and were able to taste in this world the novelty of life awaiting us – at least as far as we still sincerely believe and hope – beyond the present-day Athens and Jerusalem, behind the unknown and undiscovered walls of the city of Heaven.

Two eyesights? If only the second is real,
what should we do with the first?

There are more things in heaven and earth,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
William Shakespeare19

So that we may embark on the path of awakening from the long sleep of preconceived philosophical convictions about the necessity of the general applicability and self-evidence of human understandings that are obscuring our view on “more things in heaven and earth”, let us contemplate the question of true understanding according to Shestov. It seems that Shestov comes closest to this question in his story of the angel of death,20 who comes to man in order to separate the soul from his body. Yet it happens that the angel of death comes too early. In this case the angel does not touch the visited soul, but imperceptibly leaves him a pair of its innumerable eyes, which now allow him to see something completely new, something he had not dreamed of in his most daring dreams. Being thus endowed with new eyes, he can no longer see like people, but like angels, like beings who are not from our world, but from other, nonterrestrial worlds.
According to Shestov, Plato and Dostoyevsky were among the rare few endowed with this second eyesight, though it was not always at their disposal. This is because endowed eyesight, in contrast to natural eyesight, is not born of natural necessity, but of supranatural freedom, which can never be fully acquired. For it is with and by this eyesight that unheard of and unthinkable realities are revealed to us, realities which remain completely invisible and inaccessible to natural eyesight. This is a turning point for the observer with second eyesight, something that marks him forever. Something similar happened to Dostoyevsky’s hero from the underfloor, who was willing to sacrifice the entire world for a cup of tea if he would only be saved from it afterwards. Or to the rare lovers of wisdom in Plato’s cave, who returned to the cave after a mystic ascent to the Good: where people with natural eyesight see reality, a man with second eyesight henceforth sees only shadows and hallucinations. And in that which does not exist for the multitude of prisoners in Plato’s cave or, in the words of Dostoyevsky’s underfloor hero, for “vsemstvo”21 (all of us), because it appears impossible and absurd, he with second eyesight observes the true and only reality.
Yet even those with the greatest gift of second eyesight cannot avoid “the struggle between the two eyesights – natural and unnatural – the struggle whose outcome seems as difficult and mysterious as its beginning …”22 And this not only applies for Plato, whose dialogues are dramatically packed with the opposing views of various speakers, or Dostoyevsky, who repeatedly attempts to reach a reconciliation between various protagonists with first and second eyesight in their great novels. According to Shestov, this is even more pronounced in Gogol, at least in those works in which he untiringly expressed the morbid feeling that we and the world are governed by rational thinking with its grotesquely abstract principles, which is completely alienated from true reality.
Much like Plato did not have in mind a certain underground cave, but used it to allude to the entire cosmos as a lacking world of plurality, and just as Dostoyevsky came to realize after returning from katorga that life on the outside is basically not different at all, so Gogol in his Dead Souls did not speak only of a certain district in Russia, but with his second eyesight looked on the entire world as a sad and enchanted kingdom. Even more. As he himself confessed, the heroes of his works were not used to expose and ridicule those who should have been raised to the level of his better eyesight, but to continuously ironize and question his own self for as long as he still remained rooted in the fallen human world despite his endowed eyesight. Or as he revealed, during his stay in Nice in the winter of 1843/44, in The Rule of Life in the World: “The beginning, root and foundation of everything is love of God. But in our case this beginning is at the end and we love everything that exists in this world more than God …”23
We can, therefore, agree with Shestov that, in a similar way as Dostoyevsky later on, Gogol had considerable difficulty and no real solution in attempting to reconcile his two eyesights: “His works, filled with wittiness and incomparable humour, are the most moving world tragedy, and the same could be said of his personal life.”24 Is, then, the gift of eyesight that uncovers true reality a curse or a blessing? Does a curse or blessing mean anything at all in the area accessible with second eyesight? Does observation with the eyes of the angel of death not extend far beyond good and evil? Is it then sensible to ask such questions? Or does the solution to the riddle of second eyesight and its attitude towards first eyesight lie precisely in the unanswerableness of these and similar questions? For according to Shestov, the entire purpose of second eyesight is “to ask questions that have no answers simply because they so obstinately demand answers.”25 Is there not, beneath the ashes of the apparent absurdity of such activity, a glittering flame of man’s original longing to return to lost Eden, where unanswerable questions will no longer require answers because they will simply be needless?
In such cases, it would be better not to respond to unanswerable questions, but rather allow them to speak inside us in silence and awaken a premonition of the unutterable. Yet this can only be attained in a personal and existential way. Because, according to Shestov, knowledge ends where the first eyesight ends, and the second eyesight marks the beginning of belief in the fact that “something is just beginning here, but ending elsewhere”.26 And so we slowly begin to sense what we are to do with the first eyesight if the second opens up to us, and what to do when we are divided between the ignorant knowledge of first eyesight and the knowing ignorance of second eyesight. If we follow Shestov’s apophatic turn of philosophy from Husserl’s endeavours for strictly scientific thinking to the bold acceptance of the inconstancy of caprice and all that is groundless and unusual in life, we are following what Plato saw from his cave and Dostoyevsky from the underfloor, but only in the first premonition of hope and faith on the path towards true life. Yet precisely at the meeting point of knowledge, hope and faith there may be a possibility of mediating between the two eyesights, inasmuch as they cannot be reconciled, for we are always tempted to subordinate one to the other?
To hear this question more clearly in our minds, let us take a look at a living example of mediation between the first and second eyesight. It seems that the unique attempt of such mediation was demonstrated by the late Wittgenstein. After becoming aware of the limits of the logically structured world in his youth, he took on a new eyesight and suddenly saw the unutterable and fell silent.27 Yet he not only made use of the written language, but for several years remained truly faithful to the bold testimonies of his youth, until finally returning among cave men following the example of Plato’s philosophers. Here he not only devoted himself to daily language as Socrates once did, but also to completely unarticulated human voices.28 And so in his later philosophical studies of language games he risked a genuine attempt at connecting the two eyesights – the natural and mystical – using the symbolism of unarticulated voices to awaken in us, like Dostoyevsky’s underfloor man with a caprice, the premonition of bottomless depth and liberating unanswerability of the last philosophical questions.
On a symbolic level, the role of unarticulated speech in Wittgenstein’s search for an appropriate attitude towards the unutterable is surprisingly close to Tolstoy’s story The Three Hermits, which was his favourite. The story speaks of hermits on a solitary island who were once visited by a bishop who happened to be passing by on a ship. As a servant of God, he first asked them what they were doing for their redemption and how they were serving God and praying. They replied that they did not know how to serve God, that they were only serving one another and praying: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy on us!” Moved by such holy simplicity, the bishop smiled and spent the rest of the day trying to teach them the prayer “Our Father”. After the three hermits had finally learned the prayer with considerable difficulty, the bishop returned to his ship and, thankful to God for letting him do a good deed, sailed away pacified. Night soon fell, but the bishop continued to stare out to sea, absorbed in thought, in the direction of the island. In the distance he suddenly noticed a light that was rapidly approaching, and then saw the three hermits running on the water, illuminated by light. When they reached the ship, the three of them called out in one voice that they had forgotten the prayer and asked him to teach it to them again. Struck by fear, the bishop crossed himself and uttered: “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. I am not worthy of teaching you. Pray also for us sinners.”29

Revelation of death: a revelation of true life?

Только смерть и безумие смерти
может разбудить людей от кошмара жизни.
Lev Shestov30

Tolstoy not only inspired Wittgenstein, but also Shestov himself, particularly his later works, such as the unfinished Notes of a Madman or Death of Ivan Ilych and Master and Man, in which the aged writer was deeply involved with the question of passing away and death. Like Gogol, from whom he borrowed the title of Notes, also Tolstoy began to question his own self, to examine his own being and nonbeing through the literary treatment of the last questions. Yet his later works not only reveal an extreme existential engagement, but also a deep loss of trust and faith in the sense and self-evidence of the moral and community order which his heroes always experienced in a unique way when confronting death.
For example, in the Notes of a Madman, the rich landowner, faced with a favourable opportunity for a profitable land sale, is suddenly overcome by a dreadful and unbearable anguish without any apparent external reason. An anguish accompanied by an uncontrollable fear and indescribable horror. An anguish which, in Tolstoy’s words, is by its feeling comparable to the tormenting nausea felt before vomiting and which, despite its spiritual nature, man also feels physically.31 This is the anguish arising from the horror felt after looking back on one’s own life, which suddenly and dramatically revealed itself to the hero in all its questionability and absurdity one peaceful evening in a drowsy inn:

Death seems dreadful, but if you remember, if you think about life, then dying life is dreadful. Life and death seemed to be blending into one. Something was tearing the spirit into pieces, but was unable to do so. Once again I went to see those who were sleeping, once again I tried to fall asleep, again all the same horror – red, white, square. Something is tearing away, but has not torn off.32

What is this “red, white, square-shaped horror” that has, in the midst of a drowsy world, penetrated so ruthlessly into the hero’s soul and driven it to the verge of madness? Beforehand it had been free of any doubts or uncertainties, life had followed its ordinary course, there were no open and unanswered questions, just more or less reliable answers. Now, by some sort of witchcraft, everything has suddenly changed, all answers, all certainty and stability have vanished, time has jumped out of its hinges, solid ground has disappeared in groundlessness, the steel wagon of life has derailed and become distorted along the way to the point of unrecognizability: “All that has remained are the giant and completely new questions with their eternal, intrusive companions – restlessness, doubt, and a senseless, unnecessary, gnawing and even uncontrollable fear.”33
Has not the anguished soul with this “red, white, square-shaped horror” only now truly awakened? And has not this horror drawn from the bottom of its deep sleep in a stable and self-sufficient world an unknown longing for true life? Or has it in reality drowned even deeper into a false sleep, where in contrast to the common world of those who are awake, each sleepy individual dreams his own imagined reality? So when is awakening real and when is it not? Where does common sense end and where does madness begin? Is it all merely a strange hallucination of an unbalanced mind? If we preserve the criterion of general self-evidence, the question is determined in advance and Tolstoy’s hero is condemned to madness. Even if others do not notice this, he himself is well aware of it: “Madness is in the fact that everything which seemed real and actually existent has now become hallucinatory and vice-versa, what previously seemed hallucinatory now appears to be the only reality.”34
In Tolstoy’s later period, however, it is precisely this madness that drives man beyond the daily experience and liberates the soul for the premonition of a different life, for completely unknown questions and undreamt-of visions. Ultimately even for the “last bold jump into uncertainty”, which is done for us by another force and not by ourselves alone.35 At least that is how the confrontation with one’s own passing away and death is experienced by Ivan Ilych, a simple public servant and the second of Shestov’s heroes from Tolstoy’s later works, whose spiritual suffering in the face of an insidious disease remains concealed and inaccessible to all around him, even his close family, despite his efforts to reveal it. Finally, utterly exhausted and dejected, he finds himself in complete and hopeless solitude, a “solitude in the midst of a densely populated city and numerous acquaintances and family members, a solitude that cannot be more complete anywhere, neither in the depths of the sea nor in the earth”36.
At that very moment he is irrepressibly engulfed with questions to which he can find no answer, and an unheard inner voice begins to speak inside him, unrestrainedly casting doubt on his entire life:

Maybe I did not live as I should have? How is that, if I did everything that had to be done? … What, then, do you want now? To live? Live how? Live as you live in court, when the executor announces: ‘The court is coming’? The court is coming, judgment is coming. Here is your judgment. But I’m not guilty … What for, why all this terror? There is no explanation. Suffering, death … Why?37

The dying man finally realizes in horror that he is standing in front of a dreadful court which has eliminated the difference between good and evil, before an invisible judge who sentences everyone. Not only he, Ivan Ilych, but all people are guilty because it is not possible to resist death, and the fact that we are condemned in advance is impossible to understand. “Death cuts all invisible threads tying us together on earth with beings similar to ourselves”.38 Yet for both Tolstoy and Shestov it is precisely the complete solitude of a dying man in the face of death that is an unavoidable condition for and beginning of the true conversion of a soul.
As in Tolstoy’s first two stories, Master and Man first presents man in ordinary, generally accepted conditions of existence, only to suddenly place him into a complete existential solitude. This time it happens one winter night to the hero of the story, Brehunov, a country merchant whose arrogant greed to conclude a favourable business deal forces him to spend the night outdoors in his coach together with his servant. Despite the danger of being caught in a snowstorm in the midst of an unsettled countryside, until the very end Brehunov staunchly believes in himself and in the power of his mind and will, which had saved him so many times in his life. Remembering the pleasant moments spent a few hours ago in the warm home of a rich native in Griškino, he nevertheless have some regrets about setting out on that night in spite of the snowstorm. But he finds comfort in the thought that the true reality of his life is in that warm room where he was received as a distinguished guest and served hot tea and snacks, and not here in a snowy field in the middle of nowhere, where he and his servant are freezing mercilessly, lost and forgotten by all.
But together with the cold, a certain doubt as to the accuracy of his convictions slowly began to penetrate Brehunov’s mind. Was it not time for him to accept the uncertainty of the boundary position in which he had found himself because of his own self-will as the only true reality, and courageously confront the danger of death? No, he will rather abandon his helpless servant and coach, and ride away on his horse to seek salvation alone. And so he attempts, one last time, to defeat the invisible enemy with his own strength and ingenuity, yet this enemy is becoming more frightful by the minute. Soon after his initial floundering in the search for the right path to his rescue and the piercing shriek released from his horse’s lungs in fearful agony before death, Brehunov is suddenly overcome by a frantic fear and jumps from the horse. Lying in the deep snow on the verge of desperation, he remembers his reputation in the world, clutching onto it as if it were the last straw of his salvation:

Grove, rocks, lease, pubs, house with iron roof and granary, heir… How will all this subsist? What is this? It can’t be… Is this not a dream?39

Yet despite his enormous desire to awaken from a bad winter dream, this awakening cannot occur. At least not an awakening in this world. That is because the real awakening will happen to Brehunov when, with the last ounce of his strength, he drags himself to the sleigh and, in a state of completely incomprehensible enrapturement, begins to fervently revive his servant, whom he had previously abandoned with such indifference. After his rubbing proves unsuccessful, he wants to warm the body with his own and lies on his servant. Suddenly he himself becomes numb in his final weakness. It is then that he begins to feel “a special happiness that he had never experienced before”, until, in his last dying moments, he is overcome by an unusual feeling which, faced with the worthlessness of his previous way of life, reveals true life in the liberating embrace of death:

I am going, I am going, his entire being exclaimed joyfully, deeply moved. He felt that he was free and that nothing was holding him back any more. 40

All these literary heroes have their own actual starting point and origin in the deep life experience of Tolstoy himself. Not only in the frequent autobiographic similarities regarding external circumstances, but also in the deepest psychological sense and in spiritual distress, which reached their peak with the old man’s escape from home and his fatal cold, which chained the lonely writer in the midst of his flight to an alien bed at a remote railway station, where he was visited by death.
Despite his criticism of Bergson’s philosophy which, due to its generalizing, abstract nature, inevitably fails in face of the utterly unpredictable, chaotic and capricious inner life of man, Shestov is at least right when he ultimately confirms the French philosopher’s thought that only great artists are a source for the true inner experiences of man.41
However, this does not necessarily exclude philosophers, at least not as regards the existential contemplation of the last questions. According to Shestov, the fervor and fearless candour with which Tolstoy devoted himself to the question of passing away and death in the last years of his life can only be compared to the reflections of the greatest philosophers from ancient Greece onwards: “If Plato is right in saying that philosophers aspire for nothing other than passing away and death, ἀποθνήσκειν καὶ τεθνάναι, then we must confess that very few of our contemporaries devoted themselves so entirely to philosophy as did Tolstoy.”42 And although the late Tolstoy tackles the question of death in the form of tales and stories, his intention is not so much to write high-class literature as to fearlessly describe the “dreadful judgment”, where life’s ideals are no more binding than an occasional caprice, and where the invisible judge cannot be moved by even the greatest achievements of man in the world. And so in the background of reading Tolstoy’s later works, Shestov’s daring apology for the insanity of the mind reveals itself as an aspiration for its liberalization for the final truth, as already expressed in the medieval Russian tradition of the “jurodivs” or fools in the name of Christ.
And so to conclude our encounter with Shestov, instead of looking at Husserl’s disciple Heidegger and his phenomenal definitions of man’s being-here as “being-towards-death”43, let us turn one last time to Pascal in order to reawaken in ourselves a susceptibility for not only the originally existential, but also for the spiritual and religious dimension of this most disquieting of the last questions. If we are to believe Shestov’s interpretation of Pascal’s mystical vision of Jesus’ death struggle in the Gethsemane Garden, that God himself had added his endless suffering to Job’s scale, and that at the end of the world the suffering of God and mankind would weigh heavier than all the sand in the world ,44 then from this eschatological point of view Shestov’s “revelations of death” not only appear as “revelations of true life”, 45 but even allow us to see death itself as a mysterious gift. Not only in the tradition of medieval mystical poetry by St. Francis, who boldly glorifies sister death, but also in the contemporary philosophical thoughts of the late Jacques Derrida, who shares with Shestov an eschatological leaning as well as the heritage of the Jewish spiritual tradition:

The gift that God bestows upon me by taking me under his view and into his hands while remaining unreachable, the horrifyingly asymmetrical gift of this mysterium tremendum gives me responsibility, awakens me to the responsibility that he grants to me only by inflicting me with death, the mystery of death, the new experience of death. 46

Translated by Suzana Stančič

1     “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world: during this time we must not sleep.” Misli (Thoughts) (553), translated into Slovene by Janez Zupet, Celje 1986.
2     Cf. L. Shestov, Med razumom in razodetjem (Between Reason and Revelation), translated by Borut Kraševec, Celje 2001 (=MRR), p. 170-196.
3     Ibid., p. 171.
4     Cf. S. Adelgundis Jaegerschmid OSB, “Pogovori z Edmundom Husserlom (Conversations with Edmund Husserl) (1931-1936)”, in: Bogoslovni vestnik 4/1988, particularly p. 446: “Philosophy is a passionate will to know the being … All philosophy is a philosophy of the beginning, a philosophy of life and death. We are always starting from the beginning …”
5     Cf. B. Šinigoj, “Prvi in edini možni način filozofove biti” (The first and only possible means of a philosopher’s being”, in: Anthropos 1-2/1992, p. 21-25.
6     Husserliana Vol. II, Introduction, p. vii-viii; Taken from the introductory study by Ivo Urbančič, in: E. Husserl, Kartezijanske meditacije (Cartesian Meditations), translated by Mirko Hribar and I. Urbančič, Ljubljana 1975, p. 14
7     Cf. L. Shestov, “Kierkegaard – the Religious Philosopher” (five lectures for Radio-Paris, autumn 1937), in: MRR, p. 81.
8     Cf., ibid., “Getsemanska noč – Pascalova filozofija” (Gethsemane night – Pascal’s philosophy), in: MRR, p. 62.
9     Cf. Job 6, 2-3.
10     Cf. Martin Buber, Pripovedi hasidov (Tales of the Hasidim), translated by Tomo Virk, Ljubljana 1991, p. 103.
11     “No, philosophy is consideration.” Quoted from: MRR, p. 175.
12     Cf. Vasilij V. Rozanov, Uedinennoe (1916), Moscow 1990, p. 231, translated by Drago Bajt, Nova revija 158/1995, p. 77, and B. Šinigoj, “Dve filozofiji? In slovanska duša?” (Two philosophies? And the Slavonic soul?), in: electronic journal Logos 1–2/2005,
13     L. Šestov, Atene in Jeruzalem (Athens and Jerusalem), Paris 1951, fr. 39: “Prerekanje o resnici” (Quarrelling over Truth), translated by B. Kraševec, in: Literatura 101-102/1999, p. 125.
14     MRR, p. 81-82.
15     Cf. Heraclytus, fr. 18; Clement of Alexandria, Preproge (Stromateis) II, 17, 4.
16     Cf. Rome 4,18.
17     Cf. Rev 21,1.
18     Cf. Rome 5,5.
19     Hamlet, 1.5.180
20     This is mostlikely Shestov’s free association with the old Talmud tradition. Cf. L. Šestov, Dostojevski in Nietzsche/Premagovanje samorazvidnosti (=PS) (Dostoyevski and Nietzsche/Overcoming Self-evidence), translated by B. Kraševec, Ljubljana 2002, p. 142, and Talmud, Hagiga 2,2 and Kethuboth.
21     A word coined from the Russian expression “vse my” (all of us) introduced by Dostoyevsky in his Notes from the Underfloor; in contrast to “vsemstvo”, i.e. all of us with only natural eyesight, who in our daily lives are subordinating ourselves to the law of noncontradiction and the self-evident truths of reason (Shestov occasionally replaces the expression with Kant’s Bewußtsein überhaupt, “general consciousness”), Dostoyevsky’s underfloor hero is tirelessly struggling for the unique freedom of the mind – with self-will and caprice. Cf. PS, p. 149, translator’s note.
22     PS, 143.
23     Nikolai V. Gogol, Pravilo življenja v svetu (The Rule of Life in the World), in: same, Ispovest, translated by Dejan Lučić, Vrnjačka Banja 2004, p. 70.
24     PS, 162.
25     Ibid.
26     PS, 178.
27    Cf. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Logično filozofski traktat (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), translated by Frane Jerman, Ljubljana 1976, thesis 7: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
28     Cf. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, I, 528 in 529, in: Werkausgabe, Vol. I, Frankfurt on Main 1997, p. 440.
29     Cf. Lev N. Tolstoy, Polikuška in druge povesti (Polikushka and Other Stories), translated by Janko Moder et al., Ljubljana 1979, p. 235-241.
30     “Only death and the madness of death can awaken people from life’s nightmare.” L. Shestov, “Na strašnom sude. Poslednie proizvedenija L. N. Tolstogo”, in: Na vesah Jova, Vol. II, Moscow 1993 (=NVJ), p. 107.
31     L. N. Tolstoj, Polnoe sobranie sočinenija, Moscow 1928–1959 (= LNT), Vol. 26, p. 470.
32     Ibid. (stressed by L. Shestov).
33     NVJ, p. 99.
34     NVJ, p. 107.
35     Cf. NVJ, p. 138.
36     The quotations from Tolstoy’s works are cited according to the existing Slovene translation, which has been partly adapted according to the original version, in: L. N. Tolstoy, Gospodar in hlapec in druge zgodbe (Master and Man and Other Stories) (=GIH), translated by Vera Brnčič et al., Ljubljana 1978, p. 199.
37     Ibid., p. 198, 200.
38     NVJ, p 136.
39     GIH, p. 293.
40     GIH, p. 298
41     Cf. NVJ, p. 127.
42     NVJ, p. 138.
43     Cf. Martin Heidegger, Bit in čas (Being and Time), translated by Tine Hribar et al., 1997, §§ 46-53 and p. 346, note 6, which in the style of characteristic phenomenological reduction, quotes Tolstoy’s tale “The Death of Ivan Ilych” merely as a presentation of the phenomenon of “the shock and breakdown of this ‘passing away’”.
44     Cf. MRR, p. 75.
45     Cf. NVJ, p. 518-519.
46     J. Derrida, Dar smrti (The Gift of Death), translated by Saša Jerele, Ljubljana 2004, p. 44-45.

Boris Šinigoj

The great and final struggle of Lev Shestov: from daring uncoverings of the groundlessness of thought to tremendous revelations of death
The paper represents three basic themes of Lev Shestov’s thought. To remain faithful to Shestov’s manner of consideration, these are expressed as open questions that can still challenge our minds. The first question is a very fundamental one: “What is philosophy and what is its task?” The second question concerns Shestov’s cardinal epistemological idea of two eyesights: “If only the second is true, what should we do with the first?” And the third question is eschatological and perhaps the most profound: “Could revelations of death at the same time be revelations of true life?”
In one of his essays, Shestov tells us about his encounters with the founder of modern phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. Although their approaches to philosophy were entirely different and even antagonistic, Shestov and Husserl immediately became friends after meeting for the first time at a philosophical symposium in Amsterdam in 1928. When they discussed the key question, “What is philosophy?”, Shestov asserted with passion: “Philosophy is a great and final struggle.” In spite of their common enthusiasm, Husserl immediately rejected him: “Nein, Philosophie ist Besinnung!” Yet he had nevertheless confirmed Shestov’s reply with his radical philosophical position.
Consequently, for Shestov the task of philosophy is to teach us to live in the groundlessness and uncertainty of mind, to keep us awake by continuous contemplations of unanswerable questions, to make us sensitive to the truth that lies hidden in the paradox or the absurd. Hence, philosophy prevents us from falling asleep, which happened to the first disciples of Jesus. If we are to believe Pascal (and Shestov did), an eschatological drama is still taking place in the Gethsemane Garden as a mortal struggle of Jesus, and will continue until the end of the world. That is why we should contribute with our own struggle, i.e. our own philosophy to prepare ourselves for the very end, which could at the same time be a new beginning.
From this point of view, the second and third questions should remain even more open. The second concerns two different eyesights relating to Shestov’s obscure story about the angel of death, who now and then comes before one’s time and then imperceptibly leaves a pair of his innumerable eyes. After many references to Dostoyevsky’s capricious hero from the underfloor or Plato’s famous cave allegory, Shestov finally opens the problem of the reconciliation of two different eyesights. Another solution to this problem may be found in the philosophy of the late Wittgenstein, who takes into account even unarticulated language to stress the mystical meaning of unanswerable questions. Wittgenstein’s favorite story by Tolstoy, “The Three Hermits”, seems very close to this view.
Tolstoy’s late stories were also of great interest to Lev Shestov, particularly from the eschatological point of view. Death is considered the only event in the world that can wake up our souls from life’s nightmare. That is why Shestov undertakes a deep analysis of Tolstoy’s stories in which this great writer deals with the question of passing away and death, which, according to Plato, has always been the real aim of all philosophers. Finally, it seems that Shestov’s particular interest in the question of the revelation of death as the revelation of true life associates him not only with the old Russian tradition of fools in the name of Christ or the mystical poetry of St. Francis of Assisi, but also with the late philosophy of the postmodern thinker Jacques Derrida, who sees death as a mysterious donation of God.